There’s a moment early on in “mother!,” a thrilling descent into house-of-horrors madness from the writer-director Darren Aronofsky, that suggests the proverbial calm before the storm. A lovely young housewife (Jennifer Lawrence), not sure which color to paint her living room, decides to consult the house itself on the matter. As she places her hands against the wall, the camera zooms through layers of plaster to locate what appears to be a heart beating within — a ludicrous image that nonetheless speaks to the profound connection the woman feels with her home, as if she were its protector rather than the other way around.
It — and she — will certainly need protecting. You’ve probably heard the line about a film’s setting being a character in its own right, but rarely has that cliché been upended as ingeniously as it is in “mother!” Over the course of two precisely modulated, increasingly frenzied hours, this cherished piece of country real estate will play any number of roles: a monument, a monster and finally a victim, shuddering under a violent onslaught unleashed by the wife, or maybe her husband, or maybe — to complete this unholy trinity — Aronofsky himself.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, something that could never be said about this gloriously sustained shriek of a movie (that exclamation point is no exaggeration). For a story that seems to compress an entire history of human civilization into two hours, “mother!” always unfolds in an unsettlingly immediate present tense.
After a fiery prologue whose meaning will become clear in due course, it’s the start of a new day for Lawrence’s housewife, who’s listed in the closing credits only as “mother.” She plans to spend it as she spends every day, patiently renovating the home she shares with her poet husband, billed only as “Him” (Javier Bardem).
Even before the house’s walls begin to rumble and the toilets and floorboards start to bleed, we can see the cracks in this marriage’s foundation. Him, suffering a severe case of writer’s block, has become moody, distant and sexually inattentive toward his notably younger spouse, and the silent specter of the couple’s childlessness hovers oppressively in the cavernous space of their home, conceived by production designer Philip Messina as a Victorian gothic labyrinth of hardwood floors, winding staircases and tastefully minimalist furnishings.
But everything changes that evening when the poet opens the door to a traveler (Ed Harris) and inexplicably invites him to spend the night. She doesn’t understand her husband’s enthusiasm for bringing a complete stranger into their home, but mother is caught even more off-guard when the visitor’s wife (a supremely viperous Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up the next morning, immediately makes herself at home and proceeds to confront her bewildered hostess with one rudely insinuating question after another.
Before long, there is a clumsy accident, a burst of violence, a moment of calm and then, suddenly, a tidal wave of humanity surging in and out of every room, many of them claiming to be huge fans of Him’s work. It’s a tour de force of choreographed insanity, one that the poet receives with a warm embrace while his wife looks on in barely concealed alarm, her mounting panic captured in tight, empathetic close-ups by Matthew Libatique’s skittering handheld camera. The movie, until now a sly Buñuelian riff on the awfulness of uninvited houseguests, settles into a deeper kind of horror: the fear of being ignored and cast aside.
What’s going on here? Who are these people, and where are they coming from? What is the significance of the precious gem the poet keeps in his study, or the mysterious golden elixir our heroine keeps drinking to assuage her sudden pains? What in God’s name is this movie really about? That last question was on more than a few people’s lips even before “mother!” premiered earlier this month at the Venice Film Festival, drawing a mix of applause and angry boos that suggested the answers were not entirely to everyone’s satisfaction.
Then again, perhaps they were simply asking the wrong question. What isn’t “mother!” about? Art and life, order and chaos, gods and mortals, creation and destruction, mothers and fathers, women and men: This could be either the most claustrophobic movie ever made or the most expansive. Either way, it’s easily the most experimental feature released by a major studio in ages, a gleefully deranged companion piece to Aronofsky’s Old Testament epic “Noah” and an evil twin of sorts to “The Fountain,” with its grandiose meditations on love, death and eternal recurrence. If Roman Polanski, Lars von Trier and Hieronymus Bosch were to collaborate on a fresh translation of the Bible, the result might be half as feverishly inspired.
To describe much more would diminish the pleasure of experiencing the movie firsthand, to say nothing of the fun of dissecting it afterward. Puzzleholics will have a field day piecing together the meaning of individual images, especially from the film’s first half — a busted pipe, a blazing furnace, a bloody forehead — and realizing just how intricately Aronofsky has constructed this allegorical narrative. But you don’t need a notebook or a theology degree to understand, on a fundamental level, the deeper sense that this violently irrational movie is making. It comes together beautifully in your head even as everything else seems to be coming apart.
Are we being told the story of a strained marriage between an arrogant celebrity artist and his quiet, long-neglected wife, their home suddenly besieged by rabid fans and paparazzi? Or is it the story of a terrible fall from grace, in which the Creator develops a toxic infatuation with the foolish, selfish people devised in his own foolish, selfish image?
The genius of “mother!” is that it is aesthetically and philosophically capacious enough to accommodate both readings, each of which might well be the flip side of the other. The movie is a savage attack on the egomania that enables a director to fancy himself a deity, as well as the rotten patriarchies that govern the worlds of art, industry and religion alike, with Lawrence embodying the wise but perpetually ignored voice of the divine feminine.
In that light, it’s easy to see the film as a mighty self-reckoning on the director’s part, an indictment of his own raging auteurial ego. Aronofsky has always excelled at transmuting extreme pain into spectacle, from the agonies of drug addiction in “Requiem for a Dream” to the states of extreme physical duress in “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan,” and in “mother!,” he has effectively turned that impulse inward, winking like mad at the audience as he thrusts his demons and delusions happily under the microscope.
“It’s always about you!” Lawrence’s character spits at her husband in a moment of frustration. But if Aronofsky is making his confession, he is also administering a corrective: It may always be about Him, but “mother!” is always about mother.
We are with Lawrence every step of the way, and for all the sound and fury erupting around her at any given moment, the drama plays out almost entirely in the actress’ extraordinary face, in her pained glances, her weak splutters of protest and her heartbreaking lack of guile. And Aronofsky responds by doing something that the poet, in the end, cannot bring Himself to do: He commits himself to her entirely.
Rating: R, for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Playing: In general release